What Running the Boston Marathon Taught Me About Employee Performance
Or When the Human Spirit Triumphs Over the Search for The Best
Today is Patriots Day. Unless you live in Massachusetts, Maine, Wisconsin, or Connecticut -- or you run marathons -- the third Monday in April is probably just another day for you. But for people in Boston, this is a holiday. And like they have for the last 122 years on this holiday, they host the Boston Marathon. For marathoners, the 26.2 miles between Hopkinton and Boylston Street at Copely Square are the most storied on the planet.
I’m a runner. Though I’m not a very good one, I’ve been a runner all my life. And though I never thought I’d be ballsy enough to run a marathon, I always paid attention to this race. I fancied myself a competitor one day. A girl can dream, can't she?
In 2009 I had the opportunity to run Boston. While I was not good enough to qualify—literally, not by 30+ minutes for a woman my age—I ran it for a charity. I was honored to raise money for the Young Survival Coalition, an organization that provides support and resources for young women with breast cancer.
Running Boston is a tremendous experience. In 2009, about 25,000 toed the line at the start. The city is abuzz for days ahead of the race as preparations are made and 25,000 of the fittest people descend on the city. On race day, yellow school buses transport the athletes along the Massachusetts Turnpike out to the town of Hopkinton 30 miles away. Which is cool. Until you realize that, to get back to your hotel downtown, you must run 26. 2 miles. But the 500,000 people lining the roads to cheer on the runners offer a level of support not found at your typical marathon.
Boston was hard. But I did it. And, at Boston, I witnessed what I call the Triumph of the Human Spirit. It’s not exclusive to Boston, you can see it at any marathon.
You see, there are the elites, the runners who are competing to win the race. They are amazing. Super human. They are like gazelles. They run in a pack for most of the race, their feet barely touching the pavement. They maintain a ridiculously fast pace for 26.2 consecutive miles—a sprint most of us would be hard-pressed to sustain for 500 yards. They make it look effortless. They are beasts, yet in a graceful way. There is no expression of anguish or agony on their face. Then 10-, 8-, 6-miles out, the front-runners break away from the group to blaze a path toward the finish line. One athlete ultimately crosses the finish line first. Before the other 24,999. Victorious. A champion. It’s like they barely break a sweat. Like I said, super human.
Then there’s the middle of the pack. Solid performers. Also beasts, but closer to human rather than god-like. We can see ourselves in them. While we revere the beautiful people--the gazelles--we know we never could be an elite. Realistically, we can be a middle-of-the-pack performer.
But the back of the pack, that is where the magic happens. These are people for whom running 26.2 miles is anything but easy. These are people who struggle. The effort is on their face, in their eyes, in the way their body lumbers along. They just hope they can finish. And most of them do...eventually. They will themselves to finish. By God, they are not giving up!
They don’t have God-given talent, but they put in the effort. They train. They put in the miles. They show up every day and they do the necessary work. They do this, not because they’re going to win, not because they thirst for glory, but because they just want to be there. They are committed. They are passionate about this endeavor.
I love to watch these folks. They are so inspiring. Because they Try. So. Hard. It’s sad that most of them go unnoticed. People naturally want to see the elites—the people with super human abilities. And they wait for their loved ones to come in, who are likely middle of the pack runners, who, after crossing the finish line, gather up their belongings to head home for an ice bath and a calorie-overloaded meal. So the spectators dwindle…
These stories are overlooked also because we emphasize The Best. We celebrate The Champion. Yeah, I get it. The best is the best. And the champion, by definition, is better than everybody else. But there’s only one champion. Only one best. There's a failure in thinking that everyone else is a loser.
Sometimes when we’re hiring, we get caught up in searching for the best. That approach is short-sighted for a number of reasons. First, as we’ve already established, the best is rare. How likely are we to find The Best or will we simply be wasting our time? Are we overlooking the perfectly good, the perfectly reasonable who is standing right in front of us for this notion that we should hold out for The Best? And if we do find The Best, are we able to give The Best what they need to thrive? Our environment needs to be set up for The Best. If we’re not prepared, The Best is going to be squandered. More than that, often The Best is too much. The Best is more than we need. It's overkill.
The most compelling argument is that when we search for The Best, we overlook all the Good Enough, the people who work hard, are intrinsically motivated to do great work, and who put in the effort to do what it takes. They show up every day and give solid effort. They’re not in it for the Champion’s trophy, they are in it because they believe in being their best.
And they will give us their best.
When I ran Boston, I finished in 4:24:26, which is a PR for me. Out of the 22,849 people who finished, I was 19,252. Yeah, I know firsthand the view from the back of the pack. As I said at the beginning, I’m not good at marathons, but I love running. My aspiration is to complete a full or half marathon in all 50 states. So far, I’ve got 15 states in the books and head to Nashville at the end of this month to add Tennessee to the list. I am never going to be a champion, but I am a solid performer. I may not be The Best, but I am committed to my sport. I know what it takes to get the job done and I am glad to put in the effort.